Consumers know when they're purchasing organic food and beverages in the United States because each product has the official green symbol introduced in 2002 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Organic Program. That means there are no pesticides, genetically modified ingredients or anything else banned by government regulators in that food.
Anyone buying face cream, soap or hair rinse doesn't receive such obvious guarantees. That's because when it comes to health and beauty care products, the USDA has embarked on a dizzying set of reversals, alternately allowing, then suspending, certification of these nonfood items. The agency might certify specific ingredients as organic, but not a finished product.
Currently, there is a vaguely-worded — some say contradictory — voluntary and non-mandatory guidance for manufacturers seeking NOP certification. It's pretty toothless and in constant danger of being manipulated by unscrupulous companies. Suffice to say the guidance means little to dedicated manufacturers and core consumers, who are looking for a level of purity and transparency akin to that found in organic foods.
The industry continues to grapple with this lack of a standard. A number of companies now participate in non-government programs that recognize some level of certification, from natural sourcing all the way up to organic. At all levels, it's wise for retailers to acquaint themselves with any program that addresses the certification of natural and organic personal care products.
The newest organic label just came out this spring, and was created by the non-profit NSF International and adopted by the American National Standards Institute. The NSF/ANSI seal tells consumers that at least 70% of the ingredients in any given product are organic.
There's also the Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards, or OASIS, created as a non-profit industry trade organization in 2007. OASIS is starting out certifying products containing at least 85% organic ingredients; that number will increase to 90% in 2012.
Of course, all consumers want honest, pure products. For them, there's the Natural Product Association's certified natural seal. Introduced in 2008, the program currently certifies more than 120 products from six companies. A number of high-profile natural-food retailers, like PCC Natural Markets, has adopted the program.
Even these programs aren't immune to criticism. In fact, a lawsuit filed by an all-natural/organic soap manufacturer is challenging how OASIS and some other manufacturers have defined the term organic in creating their certification requirements.
Until government-sanctioned standards are agreed upon, retailers will have to stay up to date on the industry's self-generated programs. Consumers might be best protected following an increasingly popular mantra: Never put anything on your body that you wouldn't put into it.
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